In my post yesterday I said,
The only God that we can find and perceive and know directly as such, I believe, is the one that can be found in the very center and heart of our own Self and Being and Consciousness. That is where God is. That is where God lives. That is God, in humanity.
Some may wonder, “But isn’t God a person, a human being? Doesn’t God exist somewhere as an individual person, as we’ve come to believe all our lives?”
This is a deep question that has puzzled many people throughout history, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I will share some of my present thoughts.
God has been conceptualized both as an anthropomorphized human being or person (i.e. God Incarnate), and also as an impersonal absolute quality of the universe, and many other things in the spectrum between. In Mormonism, it has taken the former form, God being thought of as an exalted human being, an extraordinarily advanced individual person. This is called God the Father. And by His side is his Son, Jesus Christ. Another “personage of spirit” is the Holy Ghost. These three make up what is known as the “Godhead.” This is somewhat analogous to the Trinity in Christianity, although in Mormonism we are adamant that the three are distinct and separate individuals, even though they may have one overall purpose.
One of the main reasons why Mormons believe God to be a human being, a person, is because of Joseph Smith’s experiences with God, first and foremost in the First Vision. In the traditional narrative it is claimed that he saw two “personages,” one calling the other his “Beloved Son.” This became known as a visitation of God the Father, and his Son, Jesus Christ. I have shared elsewhere that the various accounts of this vision do not seem to be as clear cut as we have come to believe. I think his accounts may hint at a much deeper and more beautiful mystical truth.
I presented the idea (which I don’t think is original to me, I don’t know who first suggested it) in my previous article that the earliest 1832 account where God says “Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee,” and the 1838 account where God says “Joseph this is my beloved Son. Hear him,” I think he may have been referring to the same son both times—Joseph. I believe Joseph perceived himself to be the “Beloved Son” that God called upon, seeing himself in the image of Christ, and who God caused to give voice to the words of Christ. It was Joseph who had been “crucified” in the spirit of the “dark night of the soul” that preceded the First Vision, and who had been “resurrected” into this new glorious light and awakened understanding. Joseph saw the Christ in himself, even one who was pure, clean, whole, complete, and therefore forgiven of all sins. And it was belief upon this Christ consciousness and essence that is in the center of Joseph (and each person) that could bring about our “Eternal Life.” Most of humanity cannot perceive this divine center of their soul and being, and so they “lieth in sin” of the egoic mind, and “none doeth good” because of it. Humanity in its egoic state of mind “draws near to [God] with their lips, while their hearts [and minds] are far from [God].” Etc.
I realize this is a tremendous departure from the standard narrative and traditional understanding in the LDS Church. But what is fascinating to me is how it aligns so well with many other mystical experiences throughout history, even ancient traditions of seeing God within the self, seeing one’s self seated on God’s throne, seeing God as if in a mirror, meeting God and being struck that it was one’s very own self, etc. Mystics have repeatedly declared that they were one in God, one and the same, even explicitly saying that they were God Incarnate, even “Christ,” and many have been executed because of this blasphemy, including one named “Jesus.” The more conservative mystics that don’t have a death wish have tended to keep their mouths shut about this experienced truth rather than risk being killed, or at least speak of it only in heavily symbolic language and figurative speech so that no one could understand a word of what they were saying.
I recognize that this seemingly goes far beyond most Christians’ belief system to consider that Christ may be what we all are at our very center. When all things are stripped away from us, particularly our egoic mind and self-aware consciousness, all that is left is an absolutely perfect creation of God, God in the flesh, the Word, even Christ. This is the “Anointed” being that exists within every human being and every living being since the world began, I perceive. This is the Light of Christ. This is our Divine Nature. We are Christ. And we can come to perceive this truth directly within the depths of our soul, mind, being, and consciousness, even as the mystics throughout history have perceived it. This is the process of theosis, divinization, and deification. It is this realization of what we are, fundamentally, even our Divine Nature as one with God in Christ. They both exist, as one, in us.
But why did Joseph say he perceived an external Being in the light? And then why did it become two Beings? I think this may have been Joseph’s rational mind trying to make sense of a fundamentally mystical experience, and trying to frame it in a way that would be understood by his contemporaries. I think he experienced ultimate union with God, which is ultimately ineffable, for many reasons. It is ineffable because it surpasses our rational mind’s ability to describe in any adequate way, and it is ineffable because if one says they are one in God, even “are” God, they run up against the same fatal end as many mystics have encountered throughout history. It simply isn’t accepted by society to say that one “is God” or one “is Christ.” And so our cultural conditioning has caused our rational minds to believe that God/Christ is separate, apart, independent, and a different and distinct being(s) from us. It has often been the only acceptable way to describe God, and the way that most people are familiar with.
I don’t know if Joseph consciously knew that he was essentially creating a symbol for God when he seems to have extracted God from himself when he said he saw “the Lord” in the light in 1832. When he adds the second “personage” in his 1835 account, it seems that he may have been vaguely aware that he may have been creating symbolic “beings” that stood apart from him to account for the various divine intuitions he experienced in his vision.
I think it is possible this might have been all an unconscious interpretation of his experience in his mind. Joseph was deeply steeped in the burned-over district of the Second Great Awakening of Christianity that was happening in New York at the time, and this was really his only frame of reference for who and what God was. He knew God was “the Lord,” even Jesus, and God was his Father, even as Christianity has taught him so well. And so when he experienced God, I believe his mind interpreted his experience in that cultural framework as a baseline, and then built the symbolism from there.
The comparative religion scholar Karen Armstrong has written:
The [mystical] visions are not ends in themselves but means to an ineffable religious experience that exceeds normal concepts. They will be conditioned by the particular religious tradition of the mystic. A Jewish visionary will see visions of the seven heavens because his religious imagination is stocked with these particular symbols. Buddhists see various images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas; Christians visualize the Virgin Mary. It is a mistake for the visionary to see these mental apparitions as objective or as anything more than a symbol of transcendence. Since [visions are] often a pathological state, considerable skill and mental balance is required to handle and interpret the symbols that emerge during the course of concentrated meditation and inner reflection. (A History of God)
I believe that Joseph came to describe the God he perceived as his rational mind believed God to be, as he was conditioned by the religious tradition that was his environment and upbringing, the Christian God. Do we really think that if Joseph had been raised since birth in a completely different culture and religious tradition, that spoke little if any about Jesus that he still would have seen Jesus and God the Father in his First Vision? I don’t think so. I believe that if Joseph had experienced the same vision having been brought up in India, he may have seen Krishna in the light, or perhaps some other avatar of Vishnu (a truer reality being perhaps realizing he was Ātman in Brahman). If he had been brought up in Thailand, he may have seen a Buddha in the light, or perhaps one of the Bodhisattvas (a truer reality being perhaps realizing his Buddha-nature in nirvana).
As our own well-known LDS scholar and author Stephen R. Covey once repeated, “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are──or, as we are conditioned to see it” (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Why do we think Joseph perceived the world “as it is” and not as he was “conditioned to see it”? I think he described the God he perceived in the First Vision as he was conditioned to understand God, and that meant a particularly Christian conception of God. This became more Christian over time, including God the Father, and the King James Version translation of the biblical statement given at Jesus’s baptism (which I think was Joseph’s true baptism as well), “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!” And the Holy Ghost descends and Joseph was “filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy,” for “the Lord was with me.” And I would add, “and was Me.” This, I believe, is the God of “flesh and bones” that Joseph referred to later. It wasn’t a distant God somewhere distant on the planet Kolob, it was within the human being.
This is all to say, I don’t think Joseph perceived God as God is, without any interpretation or translation of his experience, in order to put it into language. I think it was as much an interpretation of mystical experience as each and every mystical experience that has ever been had that has attempted to be written or captured somehow externally from the human brain and consciousness. The human mind has to conceptualize it, rationalize it, contextualize it, to try to make logical sense of it. But God is beyond all of that. I think the experience of God is fundamentally transrational. God goes far beyond what the rational part of our mind is capable of comprehending. This is why God is called transcendent, beyond or above the range of normal human experience, surpassing the ordinary.
That which is normal and ordinary is our common state of mind and consciousness, this logical, rational, reasonable, modernized, secularized, scientific, Westernized mind that many of us have and that we work with on a daily basis. It seems that only artists and creatives of various kinds have a much better feel for the intuitive mind that goes beyond reason, that part of our mind that is holistic, creative, artistic, imaginative, visionary, insightful, music-oriented, etc. This part of our mind is able to feel and express God perhaps in better ways, closer to being what God is, even through the arts, poetry, music, dance, etc. Those who can utilize these two qualities or sides of our mind, sometimes thought of as left and right hemispheres, are often touted as “renaissance” people, visionaries, geniuses, prodigies, etc. They are able to look at the world with two very different sets of eyes at the same time. But when it comes to writing things down, with the exception of poetry, this often relies on the rational logical side of our mind. And so we create symbols to express it.
So is God a “person,” a “human being”? I don’t think God is fundamentally a single human being or person that exists somewhere “out there” in the cosmos on a distant planet. I don’t think God is even two human beings or persons that exist somewhere “out there” in the cosmos on a distant planet. I believe God is at the heart of the human being and person that is reading these words on this page right now sitting in that chair. God is
God is what each and every one of us is at the very base of our Being, our foundational substance, our birthright essence, I perceive. When the egoic mind (“natural man”) and all its defilements are stripped away from our consciousness, all that is left to perceive is the absolutely Perfect creation that you are, even a Saint, which is perceived as one with all of Creation. You are one with it all, every branch, and tree, and spider. That is you! You are God. You are all around, in and through all things, even the light that enlightens your eyes and quickens your understandings. This is the Christ, the Holy One of God. It is also known by many other names and concepts throughout history and throughout the world, and one may come to understand this as it is directly experienced in consciousness. God is universal. God speaks to all the nations of the Earth, even through the “Gods” that have manifested within many prophet-mystics in every culture and time, and they have written it (2 Nephi 29:12).
Do you see? God is not only a person, God is every person. God is not only a human being, God is every human being. God is all of Life and Creation. God is the Universe and every quality that makes up this Universe, and that includes you and me and everyone and everything else that is or has ever been. Realize this directly in the deepest consciousness of which you are capable, and you will come to know one of the greatest truths that is possible for a human to know. The veil will be lifted, and you will see God, and you will be “like him,” even a Beloved Son or Daughter of God, for you will see God as God is (1 John 3:2). You will finally “know thyself.” You will become one with the Father and the Son (John 17).
A very wise man once called this knowing “life eternal” (John 17:3).